A MAN IN MY LIFE
The room is so quiet that if you stood outside the door you would suppose it to be unoccupied; but there is an abundance of sound: crackling firewood, squealing chair springs, the vibrating window when a plane takes wing, the tap of steel needles, and the expletives when I drop a stitch. You might hear these sounds if you listen hard but you would not see Jeffrey's wicked endeavours to make me lose count, my voice rising with each enumeration as I walk two fingers along the pin, determined to outwit the arm-waving comedian and cursing the misfortune of being saddled with an imbecilic brother.
The mantel clock proclaims its own opinion, issuing dull thuds, which are supposed to be reverberating chimes. Two o'clock, and the rest of the day to get through. Even the fire-logs serve to emphasise the hour, a pair of charred timber chunks spilling to the hearth. I toe to safety the smithereens of charcoal and inhale the intoxicating smell of burning wood as I study the flames, remembering my youth, when Jeffrey persistently devised new ways to destroy my concentration and the strife at school when homework was inadequately completed.
The dreadful clacking of Jeffrey's dentures infiltrates the reverie, transporting me to present time like an exploding bomb. First I am ensconced in daydreams, then, suddenly, I encounter reality head-on. Unexpectedly, my brother's grinning countenance brings a swelling to my throat. Family features: grizzled hair, bristly brows and pointed nose, except that Jeffrey now has pendulous jowls, skin dark with liver-spots, and hazel eyes mottled with age. At eighty-five he should be past indulging in puerility, but it is too late for him to change and, anyway, I am fond of his desultory ribbing. Occasionally.
While he gazes at me in his silly fashion, I set the rocking chair in motion, anxious to start the next stage of the complicated pattern yet hesitant in case Jeffrey renews the struggle for power. He looks docile enough, sitting erect like a spectator waiting for the show to begin, but I never know when he will embark on another wild prank. In two minutes I could be despising him; in three, I could be storming to pack his bag and return him to the home from which I delivered him, beseeching the dear Lord to explain why a man in my life is so essential.
My confession might shock you. If you could witness this scene of cosy domesticity you might think I am satisfied with my life, that my days consist of snug tête-à-têtes and happy reminiscences or that the daily woman's duties give me ample time to knit and amuse my brother. But how can I expect her to clean the mess that incontinence affords, or supervise his eating, and encourage him to aim for his mouth instead of his shirt? And yet, on reflection, your assessment could be right. Beneath the grievances, you might detect a glimmer of the affection I feel, for despite intensifying bouts of wrath and irritation I love the old fool to pieces.
Pleased that Jeffrey has settled to read I resume my occupation. Pins clicking furiously, my thoughts roam the years, evoking instances of his outlandish behaviour. Though his impaired mental state drives me to distraction he can be enormously entertaining; like now, as he absorbs the printed word, contorting his lips and nose as if they are moulded from rubber.
In the shadow of a frivolous father and two ebullient brothers, Jeffrey grew vague and bewildered before his time. As a consequence he relied on me for support, seeing me as an island of sanity in the midst of a chaotic existence. That's why I never married. The concept of leaving my guileless brother to fend for himself was inconceivable, though lately I long to be free of obligation. Notwithstanding, the good days outweigh the bad. In fact, until the onset of true dementia, most were agreeable; funny even, if an old man's waywardness can so be called.
As dotage accelerated, Jeffrey became quite adventurous. At seventy, equipped with his pensioner's pass, he toured the county for bargains. But his logic left much to be desired. He once travelled a distance to save twenty-pence on melon, then spent ten times that amount on chocolate. I still remember his gleeful look when he produced the melon and the box of chocolates, and my incredulity.
The fingers are flying now and the rocker's going like a swing as I call to mind that day we waited in Woolworths for our brother to end a discourse with a chum. Thirty minutes trudging round counters, failed attempts to resist Jeffrey's pestering at the photograph booth and the endless wait for obscure pictures. Secretly chuckling, I recall Jeffrey's restlessness and his entreaties for a go on the weighing machine - several times - for the sheer joy of cramming weight cards in his pockets, which on the journey home were distributed among the passengers on the bus, his laughter so infectious that the whole of the upper deck joined in.
My feeble eyes are filling up; it always happens when I reproduce the images of bygone days. A pity they couldn't stay the same.
You should see Jeffrey now, playing peek-a-boo around the Daily Mail. I pretend not to notice his buffoonery. I could curb him but he's been in enough trouble since the episode next door. Unbeknown to me, on the days when I allowed him out alone, he developed the custom of going in the neighbouring gate and walking into Miss Smedley's house demanding tea. Initially she humoured him with biscuits or a cake, but when he burst in and ordered tea and toasted soldiers, with no regard for her undressed state, she ceased to think it amusing. He's now on tight rein lest the woman carries out her threat to call the police.
The room is dimming now that the winter sun has disappeared, and the fire needs banking. The clock thumps its message home. Four o'clock, it says. Time for tea. My daydreaming has taken me to girlhood and back, through teen-years to adulthood. And Jeffrey's cardigan is almost done. If the Almighty is willing I will finish it tomorrow, that is if Jeffrey deigns to let me get on. But then I'd worry. Since silence is an alien characteristic I wouldn't know if he was behaving or indisposed. Oh, if you could see him playing his game, retreating behind the paper like a guilty schoolboy whenever he catches my eye. I cannot help sniggering at his expression, a fooled-you kind of look, the sort meted out when my counting goes completely awry. I am tempted to teach him a lesson and leave his cardigan sleeveless but I cannot succumb to spite. You see, he won't have many more birthday gifts, and I won't have the foolish fun that life with him has brought.
See his face, see the way he peers at me like the simpleton he is. My throat constricts at the sight of him. Dear God, don't take him yet. For my sake, give him a year or two more.